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    Greater China
     Apr 6, 2007
Page 1 of 2
Saving Beijing's historic neighborhoods
By Pallavi Aiyar

BEIJING - Standing atop the Jingshan Park hill, just north of the Forbidden City, provides the most commanding view of Beijing, the nerve center of one of the greatest civilizations of the world for most of the past 900 years. This is a city that is saturated in history, haunted by the ghosts of warlords and khans, merchants and scholars, revolutionaries and poets.

Looking around from Jingshan hill, however, it is difficult to conjure up visions of these ghosts. What you do see radiating out in all directions from the nucleus of the Forbidden City are construction

sites, monstrously large earth-moving machines, and predatory cranes rearing up their mechanical heads high into the sky.

As Beijing gears up to host the Summer Olympic Games next year, it is anxious to project itself as a modern world-class capital. However, wrong-footed conceptions of modernity combined with a weak legal system and corrupt collusion between real-estate developers and local officials has resulted in the wanton demolition of large swaths of the historical city. In the process, not only have up to half of the physical neighborhoods that once comprised the capital's center been destroyed, but so has much of the city's social fabric.

The primary object of Beijing's demolition spree has been the hutongs, the narrow tree-lined alleyways that used to make up the entire 62-square-kilometer area surrounding the Forbidden City. Hutongs have been both the arteries and the lifeblood of Beijing since Mongol times, in the 13th century. They represent a long-lasting organic connection between the present and multi-layered past of China's capital city.

Hutongs are flanked on either side by traditional Beijing-style courtyard homes called siheyuan, or four-sided gardens. Over the centuries, complex family dramas played out inside the high, gray-tiled walls of these siheyuan, as generations of the same family and the servants who catered to them lived under a single roof, much in the same style as India's joint families.

The siheyuan were the quintessence of glamour, wealth and privilege in imperial China and thus among the most obvious targets for the communists, who deplored them as symbols of feudal decadence. From 1949 after the communist accession, all hutong homes were expropriated by the state and handed over to work units, which then allocated accommodation to workers.

Over the next few decades, formerly grand homes gradually grew dilapidated, with single siheyuan coming to house a dozen or so families, five or more to a room. But although the hutongs no longer exuded the elegance of imperial times, they continued to be the fulcrum of lao Beijing, or "old Beijing" society. The native Beijingers or lao Beijingren who lived here were the inheritors and safe-keepers of all that made the city unique: the growling local accent, the warming street snacks, the sense of being connected to the hutongs by roots that ran deep.

As the hutongs were too narrow for supermarkets, the needs of residents were provided by small corner shops called xiaomai bu and by itinerant service providers, who brought in supplies of coal for the freezing winters, sharpened knives on request, and even cleaned out dirty ventilators.

According to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (BCHP), a non-governmental organization, today there are fewer than 1,000 of these hutongs left, down from an estimated 4,000 in the 1940s.

The "New Beijing, Olympic Beijing" that red banners all across the capital city promise to build has thus emerged on the ashes of the hutongs. In their stead are a rash of mega-malls, luxury highrise residences and glitzy office spaces.

According to He Shuzhong, the founder of the BCHP, the fast-paced destruction of one of the world's most historic cities has been allowed to take place primarily because the notion of "conservation" in China has traditionally been an extremely narrow one. He says the Chinese government tends to regard heritage as consisting of a few high-profile, well-maintained and grand buildings such as the Forbidden City or Temple of Heaven.

The hutongs in their ordinariness and dilapidated present are often simply dismissed as slums without any historic value. The authorities "don't take into consideration the social history that the hutongs represent or their value as authentic and living examples of traditional Beijing architecture", He said.

This explanation was confirmed in an interview with the deputy communications director of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, Sun Weide. Sun smiled when he boasted that there is so much construction going on in Beijing currently that the municipal authorities have to update the maps of the city every three months.

Important historical sites will be protected, he continued, but hutongs with "no historical value" will be destroyed. But as He

Continued 1 2 

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